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125 Years Ago Today, John L. Sullivan Stopped Jake Kilrain In Round 75

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The older we get, many of us, the more we look backward. It’s a natural tendency, of course, because as we approach middle age, there is less anxiety in play when we look to the future, where the finish line lays, than when we look back, cradled by the warm glow of nostalgia.

The temptation to look back, with fondness, and sometimes excessive reverence, can bedevil the sports fan, especially. “They don’t make them like they used to,” you might find yourself thinking, if, say, you came of age during the time when Muhammad Ali ruled the world…and I’m not saying that isn’t true. But, I think, we often blind ourselves to the positive developments which occur as time marches forward, while looking in that rose-colored rear-view mirror.

Windy preamble aside, I do think we can sometimes look back, after acquainting ourselves with some particularly curious, or interesting or jarring history. Like, for instance…today is the 125th anniversary of a mind-blowing, in retrospect, chapter in fighting history. On July 8, 1889, bare-knuckle bad-boy John L. Sullivan battled Jake Kilrain FOR MORE THAN TWO HOURS under a broiling sun in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That one was scheduled for 80 ROUNDS. Let that sink into your head, and let it stay there the next time you see fighters losing steam in round ten of a scheduled twelve…

Author Christopher Klein wrote about that humdinger of a spectacle in “Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.” Klein was kind enough to let TSS pick his brain about Sully, that fight, and the meaning of it all.

QUESTION FROM WOODS: How and why did you choose the subject matter for this book?

ANSWER FROM KLEIN: I had done a little research about Sullivan for my previous book, which was about Boston sports, and I was struck by what a seminal figure he was in American culture. Although most people would think that Babe Ruth was America’s first sports superstar, it really was the “Boston Strong Boy” who was the country’s first sports icon. Everything you know about Babe Ruth–the fame, the fortune, the appetites for eating, drinking, and women–Sullivan was doing 40 years beforehand. He was the first athlete to earn $1 million, and during his days, he was probably along with Buffalo Bill and P.T. Barnum the biggest celebrity in America. Sullivan’s story is the story of the birth of American sports, mass media, and our modern-day celebrity culture. It’s also a tale of the Irish coming of age in America during the Gilded Age, which appealed to me as an Irish-American.

Q)Chris, what do you want readers to take away from your book after reading it?

A) I want readers to realize that John L. Sullivan wasn’t some sepia-toned relic, he was very much a modern-day figure. If sports are America’s secular religion, he wasn’t just among our pantheon of athletic gods, he was our Zeus. He blazed the trail for all sporting icons who followed him. Everything you see with today’s athletes, Sullivan was doing back in the 1880s. He acted, endorsed products, wrote his own memoirs, opened his own sports bar, flirted with running for public office, and suffered from the pitfalls of fame. I’d also want readers to learn that, although our minds flash to Sullivan fighting with bare knuckles, he only did so a handful of times and always preferred legal gloved fighting. It was Sullivan’s eventual insistence on fighting with gloves that ushered in the Marquis of Queensberry Rules in boxing.

Q)John L. Sullivan–could he hang with a Tyson…or a Klitschko?

A) While we have a tendency to look back at the “good old days” with nostalgia and believe that the sporting heroes of our youth were superior to today’s superstars, I lean the opposite way because the modern-day advances in training, medicine, and physiology give modern-day athletes an incredible advantage over those from generations ago. So I believe even a dominant boxer like Sullivan from the late 1800s would have quite a challenge ahead of him if he stepped into the ring with a Tyson or Klitschko. What would be an interesting matchup, however, would be if we put Tyson into a bare-knuckle fight with Sullivan using the old London Prize Rules, in which rounds lasted as long as a fighter stayed on his feet, wrestling was legal, and the fight lasted until one fighter could not go on. Sullivan dominated his fights under those rules during some of his championship bouts.

Q)Some of the stuff they did then, they don’t do know, it makes me SMH. You mentioned a cornerman sucking the blood out of a fighters’ eye…How and why was blood sucked out of a fighter’s eye?

A) Cornermen did a number of things that would be hard to believe today. For instance, with fighters getting bruised, bloodied, and oftentimes blistered by the sun in the ring, trainers would give their men some whiskey between rounds to dull the pain. And when a bloodied fighter came back to his corner, it was common for dutiful cornermen to place their mouths over their fighters’ noses, suck the blood clear, and spit it out to clear their breathing passages. They would use a similar method to get the blood out of their eyes to clear their vision.

Q)Boxing…better then or now…and why?

A) That’s a really tough question. Before Sullivan came along, there wasn’t enough money to be made as a professional boxer so boxers of that era couldn’t devote all their time to training and learning their craft and they fought less frequently, so the fight quality is better now. The sport is much more accessible to the fans now then back in Sullivan’s day. But I would love to have had the chance to have been ringside at one of these illegal bare-knuckle title fights, such as Sullivan-Kilrain, in the backwoods to take in the spectacle. The details of the Sullivan-Kilrain fight–between the bets flying ringside, the gladiators in the ring pitched in the great outdoors, a figure such as Bat Masterson working the corner for Kilrain, and the cat-and-mouse game to elude the authorities–are of course much more colorful than anything seen in the sport today.

Christopher Klein is the author of Strong Boy: The Life and Times of John L. Sullivan, America’s First Sports Hero.

Follow him on Twitter @historyauthor.

Here is ordering info for the book:

http://www.amazon.com/Strong-Boy-Sullivan-Americas-Sports/dp/0762781521.

Here is a link to the book’s web site, which has an excerpt and more information: www.strongboybook.com.

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2015 Fight of the Year – Francisco Vargas vs Takashi Miura

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The WBC World Super Featherweight title bout between Francisco Vargas and Takashi Miura came on one of the biggest boxing stages of 2015, as the bout served as the HBO pay-per-view’s co-main event on November 21st, in support of Miguel Cotto vs Saul Alvarez.

Miura entered the fight with a (29-2-2) record and he was making the fifth defense of his world title, while Vargas entered the fight with an undefeated mark of (22-0-1) in what was his first world title fight. Both men had a reputation for all-out fighting, with Miura especially earning high praise for his title defense in Mexico where he defeated Sergio Thompson in a fiercely contested battle.

The fight started out hotly contested, and the intensity never let up. Vargas seemed to win the first two rounds, but by the fourth round, Miura seemed to pull ahead, scoring a knock-down and fighting with a lot of confidence. After brawling the first four rounds, Miura appeared to settle into a more technical approach. Rounds 5 and 6 saw the pendulum swing back towards Vargas, as he withstood Miura’s rush to open the fifth round and the sixth round saw both men exchanging hard punches.

The big swinging continued, and though Vargas likely edged Miura in rounds 5 and 6, Vargas’ face was cut in at least two spots and Miura started to assert himself again in rounds 7 and 8. Miura was beginning to grow in confidence while it appeared that Vargas was beginning to slow down, and Miura appeared to hurt Vargas at the end of the 8th round.

Vargas turned the tide again at the start of the ninth round, scoring a knock down with an uppercut and a straight right hand that took Miura’s legs and sent him to the canvas. Purely on instinct, Miura got back up and continued to fight, but Vargas was landing frequently and with force. Referee Tony Weeks stepped in to stop the fight at the halfway point of round 9 as Miura was sustaining a barrage of punches.

Miura still had a minute and a half to survive if he was going to get out of the round, and it was clear that he was not going to stop fighting.

A back and forth battle of wills between two world championship level fighters, Takashi Miura versus “El Bandido” Vargas wins the 2015 Fight of the Year.

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Jan 9 in Germany – Feigenbutz and De Carolis To Settle Score

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This coming Saturday, January 9th, the stage is set at the Baden Arena in Offenburg, Germany for a re-match between Vincent Feigenbutz and Giovanni De Carolis. The highly anticipated re-match is set to air on SAT.1 in Germany, and Feigenbutz will once again be defending his GBU and interim WBA World titles at Super Middleweight.

The first meeting between the two was less than three months ago, on October 17th and that meeting saw Feigenbutz controversially edge De Carolis on the judge’s cards by scores of (115-113, 114-113 and 115-113). De Carolis scored a flash knock down in the opening round, and he appeared to outbox Feigenbutz in the early going, but the 20 year old German champion came on in the later rounds.

The first bout is described as one of the most crowd-pleasing bouts of the year in Germany, and De Carolis and many observers felt that the Italian had done enough to win.

De Carolis told German language website RAN.DE that he was more prepared for the re-match, and that due to the arrogance Feigenbutz displayed in the aftermath of the first fight, he was confident that he had won over some of the audience. Though De Carolis fell short of predicting victory, he promised a re-vamped strategy tailored to what he has learned about Feigenbutz, whom he termed immature and inexperienced.

The stage is set for Feigenbutz vs De Carolis 2, this Saturday January 9th in Offenburg, Germany. If you can get to the live event do it, if not you have SAT.1 in Germany airing the fights, and The Boxing Channel right back here for full results.

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2015 Knock Out of the Year – Saul Alvarez KO’s James Kirkland

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On May 9th of 2015, Saul “Canelo” Alvarez delivered a resonant knock-out of James Kirkland on HBO that wins the 2015 KO of the Year.

The knock-out itself came in the third round, after slightly more than two minutes of action. The end came when Alvarez delivered a single, big right hand that caught Kirkland on the jaw and left him flat on his back after spinning to the canvas.Alvarez was clearly the big star heading into the fight. The fight was telecast by HBO for free just one week after the controversial and disappointing Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao fight, and Alvarez was under pressure to deliver the type of finish that people were going to talk about. Kirkland was happy to oblige Alvarez, taking it right to Alvarez from the start. Kirkland’s aggression saw him appear to land blows that troubled the young Mexican in the early going. Alvarez played good defense, and he floored Kirkland in the first round, displaying his power and his technique in knocking down an aggressive opponent.

However, Kirkland kept coming at Alvarez and the fight entered the third round with both men working hard and the feeling that the fight would not go the distance. Kirkland continued to move forward, keeping “Canelo” against the ropes and scoring points with a barrage of punches while looking for an opening.

At around the two minute mark, Alvarez landed an uppercut that sent Kirkland to the canvas again. Kirkland got up, but it was clear that he did not have his legs under him. Kirkland was going to try to survive the round, but Alvarez had an opportunity to close out the fight. The question was would he take it?

Alvarez closed in on Kirkland, putting his opponent’s back to the ropes. Kirkland was hurt, but he was still dangerous, pawing with punches and loading up for one big shot.

But it was the big shot “Canelo” threw that ended the night. Kirkland never saw it coming, as he was loading up with a huge right hand of his own. The right Alvarez threw cracked Kirkland in the jaw, and his eyes went blank. His big right hand whizzed harmlessly over the head of a ducking Alvarez, providing the momentum for the spin that left Kirkland prone on the canvas.

Saul “Canelo” Alvarez went on to defeat Miguel Cotto in his second fight of 2015 and he is clearly one of boxing’s biggest stars heading into 2016. On May 9th Alvarez added another reel to his highlight film when he knocked out James Kirkland with the 2015 “Knock Out of the Year”.

Photo by naoki fukuda

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